By Megan Stanley
A brief scan of the headlines of various news stories over the past month suggests Canadian women are having quite a moment in politics. Largely prompted by the recent election of Kathleen Wynne in January as leader of the Ontario Liberal party, almost every national media outlet has produced a piece contributing to the growing public discussion on the representation of women in Canadian politics.
Even former Prime Minister Kim Campbell chimed in with an op-ed in the Globe & Mail calling for the establishment of gender parity in Parliament. According to the narrative created by these media stories, women politicians represent a new wave of game-changers on the Canadian political scene and their recent successes may signify shifts in our society’s attitudes toward gender and politics. Not too shabby.
With each story, the current state of the nation’s political affairs is reiterated: Canada currently boasts six female Premiers, some of whom govern provinces that are seen as key “have” regions in the Canadian economy. The recent Ontario Liberal leadership race, a critical election for the province, was dominated by two women candidates. The current federal Liberal leadership race features four accomplished women out of the total nine candidates seeking to change the face and direction of the party.
However, even considering these recent accomplishments, women remain vastly underrepresented in Parliament and provincial/territorial legislatures. Women comprise only 25% of MPs in Canada’s Parliament as of 2011, falling short of the critical mass (defined by the UN as 30%) needed to have a visible influence on legislation and political culture.
These facts and figures are consistently cited in both public and academic discussions, highlighting the dismal state of affairs for women in politics and calling for gender parity in all levels of government.
So, what’s the problem? Isn’t it a positive step forward for the Canadian public to recognize and respond to the need for a national discussion on women’s political underrepresentation? If gender parity in legislative bodies is the ultimate goal, doesn’t recognition and discussion of the problem help to reach it?
In short: yes, the basic idea of a national discussion is all well and good. The facilitation of public dialogue on this issue is important and helpful moving forward. But what our national discussion has not yet addressed are specific, practical proposals to increase women’s political representation. It’s all talk and no action. This is where the problem begins. While the presence of six women Premiers is certainly exciting and worthy of praise, celebration of this figure should not make us believe that the issue of women’s political representation has been permanently fixed.
We are eager to criticize the low number of women occupying elected office, but action oriented, specific proposals to address obstacles affecting women’s participation in politics remain glaringly absent from our conversation.
What I think this demonstrates is that as a society, we don’t yet understand how and why women so often remain outside of the political sphere. It’s no longer enough to simply wax philosophic about the role of women in our nation’s politics. We need to actually address it substantively.
What the majority of news articles and academic papers often fail to make mention of is that female political underrepresentation is largely a cyclical issue of supply and demand. In general, women are less likely than men to put themselves forward or “self-select” as political candidates. This narrows the supply pool of qualified female prospective candidates for voters and party members to choose from.
Additionally, most political parties are less likely to make direct efforts to recruit women as candidates. The traditional presumption that women are less likely to be elected than men continues to inform party thinking, lowering the demand for female candidates. This low demand results in parties refusing to run female candidates in ridings where the party is seriously looking to win a seat or not engaging in any direct recruitment efforts targeting women. Completing the cycle, a visible lack of women within a party negatively affects the number of women willing to put themselves forward as potential candidates for that party.
Obstacles women face when contemplating entering politics do include commonly cited examples such as childcare responsibilities and lack of funding, but less-discussed obstacles such as supply and demand, internal party culture and gender differences in self-selection are incredibly significant as well. These barriers must be discussed in a public forum in order for political parties and other “gatekeepers” to actually address them and begin to break them down. The current dialogue overlooks this.
So what has our national discussion on women in Canadian politics actually accomplished? I think that most importantly, the current media spotlight on Canadian women politicians has highlighted the presence of women in elected office and made these positions reasonable goals for other women to aspire to. This is not a small or insignificant accomplishment. Although it may seem simplistic, often the visible presence of women in political positions can serve to encourage other women to put themselves forth as prospective candidates.
I think that the very presence of women such as Christy Clark and Kathleen Wynne may help other women see themselves as viable candidates for elected office, aiding in the self-selection component of the equation. Public opinion also seems to be leaning much more in favour of women politicians than in the past. Recent media coverage has been generally positive and supportive toward women in politics, and sexism toward women politicians is being combatted through powerful initiatives like the Madam Premier tumblr.
The current public dialogue on women in politics is a progressive, positive step forward in the direction of increasing women’s representation in Canadian legislatures. But it’s not enough to raise this issue on a superficial level only when a woman is elected to a notable position. Those following the discussion already know that women are underrepresented in our nation’s politics, although political participation is slowly increasing.
What we need now is a frank, open discussion on the explicit and implicit barriers preventing women from entering politics and what can be done about them. This puts the onus on political parties and other political actors to contribute to the discussion and begin to break down these barriers. If we are serious about achieving gender parity in our governments, we need to build upon and expand the current moment women are having in politics. Let’s not just talk, let’s act.
 Paxton, Pamela and Melanie M. Hughes. (2007). Women, Politics, and Power: A Global Perspective. Pine Forge Press. Pg. 281.
 Ibid. 281.
 Tremblay, Manon and Rejean Pelletier. (2001). “More Women Constituency Party Presidents: A Strategy for Increasing the Number of Women Candidates in Canada?”, Party Politics, 7:157.
(photo CC-licensed by Canadian Film Centre on Flickr)